What Benevolent Dictator?

From time to time I hear people refer to Tim Berners-Lee as a “benevolent dictator.” In most cases they utter the phrase through a smile, but I find the phrase distasteful. It is also inaccurate.

The W3C process has evolved to reduce the central role of the Director. Without this evolution, W3C would not have been able to reach its current work capacity. Steve Bratt (the CEO) has taken on much of the management of the process. For Web architecture issues, the Technical Architecture Group (TAG) was chartered in 2001 to document principles of Web architecture and help resolve issues about Web architecture inside and outside W3C. A full-time staff of around 70 people help support the Director and CEO. The reality is that W3C has intentionally distributed decision-making responsibility to a number of parties in order to grow.

Most importantly, most technical decision-making happens in the groups themselves. W3C operates as a decentralized community of collaborating groups. They function independently, but not in a vacuum. In a presentation to the W3C Advisory Committee in April of this year, Tim wrote: “Each group, whether or not in W3C, has a duty to act as a responsible peer to other groups, recognize it is part of a larger community, and to spawn independent subgroups to do cleanly defined parts of the work when the task is big.” By coordinating, groups benefit through reviews of specifications, shared understanding with other communities, and useful architectural consistency.

What role does the Director have regarding group decisions? According to the process document, “[t]he Director is the lead technical architect at W3C and as such, is responsible for assessing consensus within W3C for architectural choices, publication of technical reports, and new Activities.” When there is disagreement over a group decision, the Director and CEO assess whether the group has duly considered the minority views and whether the technical reasoning behind the decision is sound. In short: has the group done its job? When presented with a Formal Objection, the Director makes an informed decision, siding at times with the majority, and at other times with the dissenter.

Members not satisfied with a Director decision can appeal it. It only takes 5% of the Membership to overrule Tim, hardly a dictatorship.

3 thoughts on “What Benevolent Dictator?

  1. There’s formal power, de facto power, and exercised power.

    It’s pretty clear that Tim has a great deal of the first two. The director has enormous formal power in virtue of the given role. De facto, Tim has a great deal of informal power due to the very high respect people (rightly or wrongly, doesn’t matter) have for him. He’s popular, well known, and his technical ability is rated quite high. There’s also a good deal of FUD related to his position, which also gives him a lot of power (e.g., in the OWL WG, people are quite quite scared of having formal objections). (Note, you assert that the Director makes an informed decision, but this cannot be true by definition. We’d have to assess whether the decisions are informed, fair, correct, etc.)

    On the other hand, there’s a lot of pushback on Tim’s (or the TAG’s) de facto power. Obviously, organizations can leave the W3C. People can leave WGs or take specs elsewhere, etc. Implementations can not happen or happen in odds to the specs, etc. Of course, Tim isn’t presented as benevolent dictator of the world. After all, people can leave the python community, fork python, etc. etc. and we still call Guido a benevolent dictator.

    Finally, I think there isn’t a clear account of the exercised power. It’s hard to tell without a systematic review of decisions. It’s easy if one is on the wrong side of a decision to feel that the decision was arbitrary. If there’s not an opportunity to actually vote, then that arbitrary decision feels dictatorial. If the formal mechanisms for overriding the decision are generally infeasible (de facto), then that it’s not formally a dictatorship doesn’t matter.

    So, I don’t think you’ve successfully rebutted this claim. It’s unclear that you need to. BDs are sometimes (perhaps often) considered a benefit (due to unity of direction, efficiency, etc.).

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